Rafts of debris floated on the grey expanse: tiles, beams, the occasional armchair, all woven together like matted hair pulled from the plughole of a bath. Sharp stakes of splintered wood rose, dripping, from the water and dipped down again with the contours of the waves. Two figures in Tsunami Aid jackets waded carefully across them with the same undulation.
Above the whirr of the helicopter above, one yelled to the other: “You’re the new project manager, right? What’s your name?”
“I’m—“ Crssh. The man’s voice split off as his foot plunged between two floating wooden crates and met with the chill dull water.
His companion, trudging ahead, glanced back. Her eyes were very dark. “Just focus on the job, Alex! We’re meant to be saving people’s lives, not losing ours.”
The kitchen is sticky with summer. Nita sits on the yellow linoleum and stares at the washing machine, the clothes whirling round and round in their turgid froth. Socks, a pink cotton tee. Pulled up to the right, dragged round to the top of their arc and released again with a watery chewing noise. Alex’s red Friday tie spins past and she supposes he will want it for tomorrow. The digital clock on the wall above her proclaims 11:45. Time of death, she thinks, moving a hand across her belly.
She stands up like an old woman, unfolding slowly, and crosses the kitchen. Her hair falls across her face and she pushes it away with the back of a slack hand. In the fridge, nothing but pesto, butter and a row of eggs. Eggs! Ironic, she thinks. Her fingers drift out and catch one, feel vaguely its smooth, cold aerodynamics. She guesses it will do for breakfast.
It is on the brink of being smashed against the edge of a frying pan when she realises there are green marks stretching around part of the shell. Turning it, she sees Japanese writing in felt tip and reads aloud:
“Watashi wa anata o aishite imasu.” I love you. A slight smile curles her pale lips, then fades. It’s ridiculous, the way Alex thinks his romantic gestures will make everything work. She puts it back in the fridge. She isn’t really hungry now, and besides, her mobile has begun to ring in the next room.
Scattered leaflets cover it, vibrating with every ring. Nita shoves them off and glances at the screen. Alex. Her hand shakes suddenly and she tries to press CANCEL, but her wavering thumb betrays her and accepts his call. Shit.
“Hi, baby. I’m on lunch break. Nearly fell asleep in the cluster meeting. It’s only the first bloody half, believe it or not. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine, dear. Thanks.”
“Been out anywhere?”
“No. I found your message.”
He laughs easily. “I had a moment before work. Wasn’t sure if you’d still remember the old lingo.”
“It’s a common enough phrase.”
She knows by his pause that she has stung him, and wants to apologise, but her head is full of things she musn’t let tumble down to her tired tongue. Sorry—that’s the word—but he starts speaking again.
“Yes, I guess it’s not hard to remember. Did you call the doctor about the next appointment?”
“No. Sorry.” Sorry he had to sit in an office all day because she couldn’t look at a passing child without seeing a tiny hand flopping from rubble. Sorry he had to ask.
“Want me to do it when I get home?”
“I’ll do it. Now. I’ll have to hang up.”
“Nita, wait—Do you think maybe Prozac or something—“
His vacuum-packed Messiah again. “Bye, honey.”
“Oh—bye. I love you, Koibito.”
“Love you too.” Beep.
The sofa next to her looked comfortable. She sank into it and swung her legs up, letting the cool leather rearrange itself around her bent knees, her sharp hips, her stomach.
Alex knelt among the broken shards of buildings on the floor of what had been the young girl’s bedroom. Pale sunlight crept in through the destroyed roof and glinted on the steel rails of a bed. His scruffy hair moved in the wind, a blond as dirty as the tan lines around his scuffed Chacos. He laid a hand on her bare shoulder and spoke in Japanese. She buried her dark head deeper in her dress and said something shaky in reply.
Nita folded her arms and looked down at him. “Why won’t she come with us?”
One uniformed shoulder turned. “She was pregnant, but she thinks she lost it in the quake.”
“Thinks or knows?”
He didn’t say anything and, looking at the girl, she realised why. The hem of her green cotton dress had a rusty sheen like an old tuppence. Nita felt a slight heat creep across her cheeks. “We should get her to the doctor. Can she walk?”
More Japanese. The girl doubled over suddenly with a cry like a swooping gull and shook her head fiercely. Alex nodded. His hand dipped into the pocket of his jacket, rummaged, came out with a flat white pack of pills clamped under his thumb. Nita knelt down next to him.
“Just painkillers. So we can get her to the medics. Strong aspirin.” He pressed his thumb down on one of the plastic knobbles. Nita put her palm over it to stop him.
“You can’t just dish out medication! You don’t know her history, what the doctors will want to give her—“
“We can’t get her anywhere like this. She’s in too much pain to walk.”
“Then carry her.” His eyebrows creased, his lips parted, but she angled her skinny shoulders, pointed her dark eyes at him. “Carry her back. Leave the pain.”
The girl was crying silently into her hands. Alex put the aspirin back in his pocket and reached gently for her. Nita rose again and stepped back. As they left, the crying girl draped across his shoulder, Nita’s eyes flicked to a stick jutting from the roof tiles and bricks around the bed, its tip stained a scarlet far brighter than the faded blood on the green material. She shook her head. The quake that had dissolved a town to shards; an alibi for a girl in a stained cotton dress.
Later, Alex would sit by her in a quiet area of camp and teach her the soft words he whispered to the girl on the jerky wincing journey across the ruins. They were haiku poems, gentle bright images of cherry blossom and spiders webs swaying in autumn winds, the harmless beauties of nature. She smiled at him, at his division of the forces that smashed cars and people to rubble from the ones that soothed girls and made spidersilk flutter.
The key scrabbles predictably in the lock at eight o’clock. Four seconds later, a rucksack thumps onto the floor. “Nita?” Footsteps advance along the hall.
Alex opens the living-room door, his face tense, and his eyes land upon her curled in the chair in a black tracksuit with the red light of the sun beaming on her face, her dark eyes intent on a book of haiku he had bought her in Japan. The leaflets he had left on the table for her lie scattered at her feet. ‘Mind over Mood’, ‘Side-Effects’, ‘Curse of the Strong’.
She glances up at him, smiles. “Hey. Glad you survived the cluster meeting.”
A broad hand passes across his face, wipes the tension away and replaces it with a grin. “Barely.”
“Your egg is still in the fridge.”
“Aww! Don’t feel bad about frying my declarations of love—“ he stops, “or were you not hungry?”
“You didn’t make the appointment.”
“No. Sorry.” She picks up a leaflet and waves it at him. “I…just want to know everything about it first.”
He nods reluctantly. “I’ll make dinner. At least a bit of my special macaroni should cheer you up—eh?”
As soon as he leaves the room, Nita draws her knees up to her head and clamps them tight with both hands to block the shards of glass stabbing at her stomach. The foetal position. His egg still in the fridge. Every clank of saucepan from the kitchen, every nonchalant whistle, makes her inhale sharply. She opens the book of haiku again.
“Still air prepares
a path for autumn storms
to sear the drenched earth.”
Earthquakes, too, begin in stillness. Nita flew from broken village to ruined city, and after a while she found she could see lost images frozen in the unmoving destruction. The office blocks leaning into one another, surrounded by anonymous dust and grey fragments, leaned apart again in her mind and peopled themselves with workers sitting outside on lunch break smoking, secretaries running in late after taking their children to school.
It was a year after Alex lifted the crying girl from the earthquake house that Nita broke down halfway through a planning meeting. Unquestioningly, he flew home with her. This house was his idea of refuge, a quiet place for her to reconstruct whatever it was she had lost out there in the seas of bricks. No fault lines here, no screeching steel girders or screaming people. No blood.
For three months, there had been no blood.
Ink stains creep across the scarlet sky as they eat. Nita notices her portion is significantly larger than Alex’s, and to please him she lets some of it slide down her throat. He keeps his eyes on her for most of the meal and she has to suppress the irritation that swirls up. By the time he goes to wash the dishes, the air is intolerably thick. He leans out of the kitchen window and rubs his fingers together like a haberdasher testing the quality of silk. “Feels like a storm.” A sniff. “Smells like one too. It’s a funny smell, isn’t it?” He turns back towards her. “Coppery, like old pennies. Or blood.”
Her eyes flick away, across the kitchen. “Yeah. A bit.”
Watching television with him proves torture. She finds herself curling away from him, burrowing into herself and contorting her mouth in a silent scream every time his attention is diverted by some high-speed car chase. When the first bolt of lightning throws its heat-white flare through the curtains, it’s a relief. “Better turn it off,” she says. The folds of her black zipthrough are disturbed by his fingers. She forces herself up and walks away.
She has taken off the hooded top and is lying down facing the flashing window when the covers rustle and the weight of him slips onto the mattress beside her. “Sleeping in your sweatpants?”
Lips wrench apart. “Yes. Comfortable.”
“You’ll be hot.”
She thinks he has stopped talking and rolled over to sleep, but suddenly a hand reaches agonizingly round her stomach and he says, “You’re quiet, Koibito. Scared of the thunder?”
She unclips his arm. “I’m fine. Tired.”
No more words, only a confused puppy hurt throbbing behind her back and the storm ahead. Nita closes her eyes and pictures the cool rain outside. Silver piano notes playing on the gutters, streaming down to the receiving earth. Into her ears comes, faintly, the restful hiss of them seeping through dry grass.
‘A lightning gleam:
into darkness travels
a night heron’s scream.’
The coppery smell of a static sky. Tomorrow she will get up early, sort everything out, finish the housework. Behind the machine, wedged between gurgling pipes and the harsh floral scent of washing-powder is a long stick, tipped with roof-tile red. She never had hung the laundry out.